COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka's president declared victory Saturday in his nation's quarter century civil war with the Tamil Tigers rebels. But the group's top leaders remained at large as troops and the cornered insurgents fought fierce battles across the war zone.
A triumph on the battlefield appeared inevitable after government forces captured the last bit of coastline under rebel control early Saturday, surrounding the remaining fighters in a 1.2-square-mile patch of land.
Thousands of civilians who had been trapped by the fighting poured across the front lines, the military said.
"My government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation finally defeated the LTTE militarily," President Mahinda Rajapaksa said, referring to the rebels by their formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The rebels, who once controlled a de facto state across much of the north, have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by the Sinhalese majority. Responsible for hundreds of suicide attacks — including the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — the Tamil Tigers have been branded terrorists by the United States, European Union and India, and shunned internationally.
After repeated stalemates on the battlefield, the military broke through the rebel lines last year and forced the insurgents into a broad retreat, capturing their administrative capital at Kilinochchi in January and vowing to retake control over the rest of the country.
The rebels have insisted that if they are defeated in conventional battle, they will return to their guerrilla roots.
About 11,800 civilians escaped the war zone Saturday, joining more than 200,000 others who fled in recent months and are being held in displacement camps, Nanayakkara said. Rights groups say the rebels were holding the civilians as human shields to blunt the government offensive. The rebels denied the accusation.
The United Nations says 7,000 civilians were killed and 16,700 wounded from Jan. 20 through May 7. Since then, health officials say more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in a week of heavy shelling that rights groups and foreign governments have blamed on Sri Lankan forces.